Tuesday, 8 May 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history (part 5): 1990-93

Into 1990 and we were in the middle of the longest gap in production for the series yet, nearly 18 months.

"The Jolly Boys' Outing" was first repeated on Sunday 8th July at 4.50pm.  7.6 million viewers and 31st in the charts is a lot less than usual for this period but then it was rather early.  On a Sunday.  In July.

The cast kept busy: Nick Lyndhurst finished off one long-running LWT sitcom, The Two of Us and started on another, The Piglet Files.

By the late 80s David Jason's stock on British television was still on the rise, largely on account of Only Fools' continued high profile but buoyed by his 1988 Best Actor BAFTA for portraying aged college porter Skullion in Channel 4's adaptation of Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue.

As a result he began to branch out, accepting an offer from Yorkshire Television to take the role of Ted Simcock in their new comedy drama A Bit of a Do written by David Nobbs.  Screened by ITV the same six weeks as Series 6 of Fools*, it averaged over 14 million viewers and indicated that the public accepted the actor as a leading man outside of the BBC sitcom.

*Not riding on BBC coattails at all there, ITV.

David Jason with his A Bit of a Do co-stars (l-r) Nicola Pagett and Gwen Taylor
A Bit of a Do ran for one more series, but Yorkshire had another vehicle for him - an adaptation of H E Bates' The Darling Buds of May, the series of comic novels about the exploits of the big-hearted Larkin family in their idyllic Kent farm in the 1950s.  As we all know, Jason played the patriarch, Pop Larkin, opposite Pam Ferris as Ma and up-and-coming Catherine Zeta-Jones as their daughter, Mariette.  To say the resulting series caught the mood of the time is an understatement.  The debut episode on Sunday 7th April 1991 went straight to the top of the charts with 16.68m - a figure Only Fools had taken about five series to achieve.  In a couple of weeks audiences had risen to 18.35m.  David Jason's availability to the BBC was about to become extremely limited.

Jason toasts his Darling Buds success with Pam Ferris, Philip Franks and Catherine Zeta Jones.  A rather obvious caption, I admit.
But not just yet.  Immediately after completing his first series of Darling Buds, in October 1990, it was time to make another series of Only Fools - the last, as it turned out.

We kicked off again on Christmas Day 1990 at 5.10pm with "Rodney Come Home" winning 18m, No.3 for the week. Competition was the tail end of the, I believe, fifth ITV showing for Moonraker; a festive edition of Michael Barrymore quiz Strike It Lucky, featuring child contestants; and Ken Dodd at the London Palladium.

In "Rodney Come Home" we learn that Raquel, having been unexpectedly reunited with Del in "The Jolly Boys' Outing" - a surprise I don't recall being spoiled anywhere - is now living at the Nelson Mandela House flat.  Rodney and Cassandra are having marital problems on account of Cassie's ambitions at work.

The S7 regular cast in "Rodney Come Home".
They evidently enjoyed making it, at least.
The episode is amusing enough, but it's immediately obvious that something has changed.  The storyline is meandering, and the ending is downbeat - Rod and Cass have split, temporarily at any rate, and he heads back to the flat with Del to the voice of, not John Sullivan singing "Hooky Street", but Joan Armatrading singing "Somebody Who Loves You".

Up until this point, I'd argue that no episode had simply been about relationships, and that it's uncharacteristic of this sitcom to do so.

Another curiosity is Del-boy's assertion to Albert, in the very first scene, that he no longer takes anything to do with dodgy goods:

Albert
What you got in that suitcase then?  Hooky gear?

Del
(deeply offended)
How dare you!  I don't deal in that sort of stuff - least not since Raquel's been with me - I can't get her involved in anything like that.

Arthur Daley gives a similar speech in an episode of Minder, the first without Dennis Waterman, filmed around the same time.  I may be making more of this than necessary but surely it's noteworthy that two such kindred spirits of the 1980s should vocally amend their philosophy as soon as they emerged in a brand new decade; and that shortly after, Margaret Thatcher was forced to stand down as Prime Minister.

The new series began five days later, on Sunday 30th December at 7.15pm.  Episodes were again 50 minutes, but made on a ten-day turnaround rather than the seven days that had so exhausted everyone last time round.

Ep 1, "The Sky's the Limit" got 15 million viewers opposite The Very Best of Beadle.  It's a decent episode, in which Boycie has his expensive new satellite dish nicked, but I remember a former schoolfriend of mine, and fan of the show, bemoaning that the conclusion - it appears that the satellite dish sitting on the Trotters' flat balcony is directing a 747 towards the tower block - was just stupid.

It didn't particularly bother me, but I can't deny it would have looked out of place in even the series before.  Of course, 911 has since placed its own, rather more serious, imprint on the scene.

Into the new year, and the remaining five episodes were shown at 7.15pm Sundays, opposite Murder, She Wrote -- ITV wisely continuing not to even bother.  I was in my second year at University here, but we had such long Christmas holidays I was able to see the whole run before it was time to go back!

I was in touch quite a bit with another mate from school around this time - the person who'd first told me about Only Fools back in 1982, in fact - so I specifically remember it in terms of discussing with him each week.  We both liked the series on the whole.

The return of Del's nemesis, ex-DCI Roy Slater, played by Jim Broadbent, in "The Class of '62" was another surprise, albeit guessable.  Nowadays he'd be on the front of the listings mags.

An unwelcome return visit to Peckham by former bent copper Roy Slater, but viewers had a great time!
Something else about "The Class of '62" - we learn that Del, Trig, Boycie, Denzil and Slater went to school together.  Now, if John Sullivan says so I'm not inclined to argue, but in my opinion this is a case of something that wasn't necessarily the case solidifying into canon as the episodes stack up.  Rodney didn't seem to know Trigger terribly well, if at all, when he meets him in "Big Brother"; and neither Rodney nor Grandad knew Boycie the first time they met him on screen.  Never mind - it seems right.

Other episodes from S7 include "Stage Fright", with Philip Pope as club singer with a speech impediment Tony Angelino; and a long overdue showcase for Albert, the apparent victim of a mugging in "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Uncle".

The 7-episode run was, like the previous series, serialised.  Rodney and Cassandra remain estranged, with Rod resigning from his position with his father-in-law's printing firm.  Probably inevitable, plot-wise, that he return to Trotters' Independent Traders if the series was to continue.  But the most important continuing storyline is Del's impending fatherhood, Raquel revealing the good news in ep 2, "The Chance of a Lunchtime".

Heck of a lot better than 3 Men and a Baby, that's for sure.
And so, in "Three Men, a Woman and a Baby", Raquel gives birth to Damien.  The series couldn't have had a better ending - a hilarious, heart-warming episode and one of the best-loved.  The "Damien-as-Anti-Christ" gag starts here, and it's a great one although playing havoc with the series' later release on DVD.  The Carmina Burana piece used to accompany Rodney's arsenal of horrified looks has presumably proved too expensive to clear and been replaced in all cases by Jerry Goldsmith's 'Ave Satani' from The Omen soundtrack - appropriate, but poorly done.

The ratings?  Sensational.  Again, the best so far - an average of 16.75m, with the finale reaching 18.9m and No. 1.  Another triumph for all concerned, but if I had a criticism other than the slight dip in quality inevitable for a ten year old series, it would be because of the serial form.  I think you risk compromising the shape of individual episodes when you introduce ongoing storylines - and that shape is one of the great strengths of sitcom.

Nick Lyndhurst and David Jason on location in Miami, publicising BBC One's Christmas 1991 schedule.
October to December saw production of that year's Christmas special - a two-parter for the first time, and an expensive one as David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst headed to Florida for "Miami Twice", a Clouseau-esque tale of Del discovered as being the exact double of Don Vincenzo Ochetti, a Mafia boss on the verge of life imprisonment.  But, not if he's very publicly assassinated first...

A rather silly story, and not liked by many, but I love watching it for its production values.  Unless I'm mistaken, it is a very early use for British television of Super 16mm film - which would look sensational in Hi-Def.  Still waiting.

Part One went out on Christmas Eve at 7.30pm opposite The Bill, winning 17.7m; Part Two on Christmas Day at 3.10pm, just after the Queen's Christmas message - the earliest slot ever for a first run episode, and perhaps one reason for the less impressive audience of 14.9m.  Strong competition for once, the first of two visits to Coronation Street that day, and one which cheekily straddled the Queen's speech, may be another.

Fools fans had done pretty well the past 12 months, but into the new year and David Jason's schedule became even busier.  A fan of Columbo, he had always wanted to star in a detective series, and when Yorkshire Television asked him what he wanted to do next, he seized his chance.  A suitable vehicle was found in the form of R D Wingfield's series of novels about the slovenly Denton-based DCI "Jack" Frost.  The resulting show ran for 17 years.

David Jason's Jack Frost is not that similar to the character from the books, but it didn't matter.  It was another huge success for the actor.

In 1992 Jason filmed the first three A Touch of Frosts followed by the third and final run of Darling Buds.  Not much room for further Trotter shenanigans but luckily, the Fools Christmas Special had become such an important part of the festive schedule that we could at least rely on it if not a series - for a time.

Producer Gareth Gwenlan gives an interesting insight into Jason's availability for "Mother Nature's Son", the 1992 Christmas episode, in the 'Daily Express' on Saturday 19th December: "I had to know a year ago when I would be able to have him.  He became available to us on December 1, and we ha[ve] his services until December 22".  Jason himself is quoted as saying in the same article: "As long as John Sullivan can go on writing Only Fools, I'll go on playing Del.  When you get writing of that quality, you simply don't turn your back on it".

Albert, Del and Rodney visit Grandad's allotment in "Mother Nature's Son"
"Mother Nature's Son" saw Del 'discover' the Peckham Spring on Grandad's old allotment, a new source of spring water which proved very lucrative - in fact, it was tap water from the flat.  A step up from "Miami Twice" and winner of the highest audience yet, a massive 20.13m viewers when shown on Christmas Day at 6.55pm - opposite Barrymore.  Things may have been winding down for the show, but with that kind of following, it was still assured a future.

John Sullivan with Diane Bull publicising Sitting Pretty in 1992.  Not repeated, not on DVD, but not that bad.
1993 was apparently to have seen an eighth series, but Jason's contract with YTV put paid to that.  Nicholas Lyndhurst meanwhile began his long run in Goodnight, Sweetheart for the BBC, and John Sullivan was in the midst of his first new show in seven years, Sitting Pretty.  Starring the late Diane Bull as Annie Briggs, 1960s good time girl forced to return to her humble beginnings when her rich husband dies leaving her penniless, it ran to two series but sadly, was not a success.

One more special - October/November 1993 saw filming of the ninth and final consecutive Only Fools Christmas Day special, "Fatal Extraction".  This time it's Del and Raquel who are having difficulties (Rodney and Cassandra had resolved theirs), and Del makes an ill-advised date with a dental receptionist who may have some issues with rejection.

Some things never change.  Rodney forced to model Del-boy's latest bargain items in "Fatal Extraction" - skiing gear "manufactured by the one country that leads the world in alpine clothing - namely, Fiji"
Of comparable quality to "Mother Nature's Son", "Fatal Extraction" was shown at 6.05pm to 19.59m viewers, opposite ITV film premiere National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  It was only beaten in the week's charts by Boxing Day's One Foot in the Algarve with 20m, the highest audience ever achieved by Victor Meldrew and a victory not begrudged by me.

And then...it grew quiet.  Was the series finished?  No - but in terms of regular production it was, after 12 years and 58 episodes.  The end of a glorious era.

Next time: the final chapter.  Two comeback trilogies, one stupendously successful, the other...not so much.

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